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Confused by Facebook’s new privacy policy? You’re supposed to be

facebook proposed updates to governing documents

As you may have heard by now, Facebook wants to make a bunch of changes to its site governance documents – the so-called Data Use Policy (its privacy policy) and its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (its terms of service). While there are quite a few changes on Facebook’s list, one in particular caught my eye.

Under the section covering Facebook Messages in the Data Use Policy (PDF), Facebook wants to take out this line: “You can control who can start a message thread with you through your ‘How You Connect’ settings. If they include others on that message, the others can reply too.” And it wants to replace it with, “Anyone on a message thread can reply to it.”

After re-reading this language a few times, I still couldn’t figure out what the heck “Anyone on a message thread can reply to it” means, in the context of the Data Use Policy. Having received an offer from a Facebook spokesman to “answer any questions” I might have about the proposed changes, I decided to reach out to him and ask: What, exactly, does this change mean for Facebook users?

This was the Facebook spokesman’s reply:

“With all our products, we carefully monitor user interaction and feedback in order to identify ways to enhance user experience. We are working on updates to Facebook Messages and have made this change in our Data Use Policy in order to allow for improvements to the product.”

Exsqueeze me?

Still confused, I asked the Facebook spokesman for further clarification. He never responded.

Were this simply a press release about a new site functionality, I might have let it drop at that. But we are not talking about a press release – we are talking about language in a legal document, a binding contract that all of us must agree to in order to use Facebook.

History of “huh?”

The intense ambiguity of the Facebook spokesman’s response came as no surprise; the social network has a habit of littering its site governance documents with all types of vague nonsense.

For example, under the hilariously titled section of the Data Use Policy “How Facebook uses your data,” the company explains the ways in which your information is used thusly: “We use the information we receive about you in connection with the services and features we provide to you and other users like your friends, our partners, the advertisers that purchase ads on the site, and the developers that build the games, applications, and websites you use.”

In connection with the services and features – that could mean almost anything! Following that paragraph, Facebook provides a number of concrete examples of what this might mean, but by no means claims to tell us all the ways in which our data might be used.

A few paragraphs down, the company repeats this obnoxious habit, saying that it won’t share your personal data unless it has “received your permission,” or “given you notice, such as by telling you about it in this policy,” which of course is also incredibly vague.

Given that Facebook has a history of leaving room for interpretation in its terms and policies, I can only interpret the “message thread” language in one way: The social network wants to add intentionally confusing and ambiguous language to its privacy policy to cover its ass when it makes changes later – changes that it has so far refused to reveal to its users.

Sham on all fronts

The troublesome language first came to my attention on Tuesday after two privacy advocacy groups, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), published a letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg in which they ask the CEO to abandon the changes due to potential privacy risks that could come along for the ride.

EPIC and CDD interpreted the new language – “Anyone on a message thread can reply to it” – to mean that Facebook will remove the privacy control setting that lets people prevent strangers from sending them direct messages. (You can currently allow “everyone,” “friends,” or “friends of friends” to send you messages on Facebook, in case you didn’t know.) The potential result of this, said the groups, is that it would likely “increase the amount of spam that users receive.” Which in turn could result in a greater number of scams or malware being passed through Facebook’s channels.

While this theory may in fact be the right one – Abine’s privacy expert Sarah Downey believes that it is – my complaint has nothing to do with whatever changes Facebook might make to Messages – we have to cross that bridge once it’s built. Instead, I am appalled by Facebook’s willingness to pretend like it is giving its users a choice about how our privacy is treated while simultaneously seeking to include confusing language on purpose.

All of this comes on top of the farce that is Facebook’s voting process. As many other commentators have pointed out, allowing users to vote on proposed changes to policy appears to be nothing more than a show: According to the voting rules established in 2009, a full 30 percent of Facebook users must oppose the proposed changes to stop them from going into effect. Pull out your calculator, and you’ll find that 30 percent now equals roughly 300 million people – the entire population of the United States. Given that a mere 0.038 percent of users voted during the last round of proposals in June, it seems next to impossible that the masses will show up this time around.

Oh, and did you know that one of the changes Facebook wants is for users to give up their ability to vote on any other changes in the future? (Really.)

Prove me wrong – do it right

One one hand, you could argue that Facebook is doing more to include its users in the site governance process than most companies. It is, after all, allowing us all to vote on the changes by its own volition. (This time, at least.) But how are we supposed to vote on whether to change specific language if Facebook is unwilling to tell us what that language means?

Given the absurdity of the voting process, there was little reason to respect Facebook’s efforts already. Now that we know the company is attempting to pack the DUP with language that is intentionally vague, the number of reasons have dropped to zero.

Is this a subjective interpretation of the situation? Absolutely – but no more subjective than terms like “enhance user experience” or “improvements to the product.”

If Facebook wants to allow some wiggle room in its policies in order to roll out new products without violating its own terms, that’s totally fine. All I ask is that the company not hide its intentions behind a democratic puppet show or a veil of meaningless nonsense.

Give it to us straight, Facebook. We’ll like you better for it.